On September 29, a North Dakota farmer who had gone out to harvest his wheat fields discovered a 20,600-barrel oil spill from an underground pipeline. The farmer, Steve Jensen, was the first to find the spill — Tesoro Corp., the company that owned the pipeline, hadn’t detected the leak in their pipeline, despite the fact that it had been spewing oil for 11 days and had covered an area of about the size of six football fields.
According to a new review by the Wall Street Journal, this scenario is common in the U.S. — more often than not, it’s people who discover pipeline leaks, not the pipeline’s leak detection equipment. The WSJ looked at Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data for 251 pipeline incidents over four years, and found that nearby residents or company employees were nearly three times as likely to detect a leak in a pipeline than pipeline technology was. Leak-detection software, special alarms and 24/7 control room monitoring discovered leaks just 19.5 percent of the time.
The review points to the dangers of transporting oil by both pipeline and rail, concerns that are especially relevant as the State Department’s release of the final Environmental Impact Statement of Keystone XL draws nearer. The section of Tesoro pipeline that leaked wasn’t required to have leak monitoring or pressure sensors, which makes the spill’s discovery 11 days later by a farmer unsurprising. In an October interview with the New York Times, Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, said the federal government hasn’t moved quickly enough to improve leak detection standards
“Even though people have been calling for better leak detection, it is usually a landowner who finds the spills,” Weimer said. “It runs counter to what the industry tells us, that they can detect and shut off these spills in a minutes, when they actually go on for days.”
The WSJ notes that there are other, higher-tech spill detection technologies that pipeline companies can install if they want to improve their leak detection rates, including infrared imaging, fiber-optic cables that can detect slight changes in the pipeline’s temperature, and acoustic sensors that can recognize the sound of oil leaking from a tiny hole. But a PHMSA study found that most pipeline companies have chosen not to upgrade their equipment, “fearing higher costs and false alarms.” Already, TransCanada has said it will not install infrared sensors or fiber-optic cables if Keystone XL is approved.
Though the WSJ review casts doubt on the ability of pipelines to safely transport oil, a recent statistic shows transporting oil by rail — which Canada is considering as a potential alternative to Keystone XL — is no safer. According to PHMSA data, more oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013 than was spilled by rail in the pervious nearly four decades combined.